John Wesley Coleman plays the Nightlight on Wednesday, July 20, with Shit Horse and fellow Austin act Rayon Beach. The show costs $6 and starts at 9:30 p.m.
John Wesley Coleman III finally calls back at 10:15 p.m. It’s a Sunday, and his phone has been off all day. His label, esteemed Memphis garage purveyor Goner Records, isn’t surprised at his non-responsiveness. “He’s pretty much out of his mind most of the time so you never know,” they say in response to the situation.
Coleman’s a hard man to pin down, and this applies to more than just trying to get in touch with him. On his own, the guitarist of Austin rock outfit the Golden Boys breezes through gloriously trashy garage songs that use comfortable lo-fi fuzz as a vehicle to flit through a multitude of little observations about the world. Sometimes he’s ranting one line about a basketball over and over. Other times he’s detailing a tragicomedy about a girl who did her man wrong and then got thrown in jail.
This loose, freewheeling nature is the greatest asset of his enormously charming records, the latest of which is last year’s Bad Lady Goes to Jail. I caught up with Coleman to talk about that record and the method behind his unorthodox songs.
Independent Weekly: What do you mean when you call yourself a “trash poet”?
John Wesley Coleman III: I never really call myself a trash poet. It’s other people. I think my friend started that. He writes for The Onion. He just kind of coined it because I had a little poetry book called American Trashcan. It was also attached to a collection of miscellaneous recordings of early shit that I did. They put it on a CD and attached a book to it, and I called it American Trashcan because they were all on the kitchen shelf. They were all sort of scattered around like trash. I don’t know. I guess whatever. Trash sounds good, not the opposite. I never really call myself that, but it sounds cool. So fuck it. I’ll roll with it.
I do like poetry. I do like writing stuff. That’s what I do. I guess it sounds a little better than “romantic poet” or something. Or “butthole poet.”
Your music strikes me as a collection of fleeting observations. Is that why you’re comfortable with that title?
I think so. It’s kind of like you’re walking down the street, and then you pick up a piece of paper. And it’s a coupon, like for the Sonic cheese burger place. When you get home and uncrumple it, it has the address and the date on there and a color to it and a theme. And it makes you hungry or not hungry. That’s kind of like a time capsule of that one day or that one moment. So it’s just kind of easy. A coupon’s not good for a whole year of cheese burgers. It’s good for just that one time. That’s kind of like what it is. It’s easier to four-track a quick observation. You move around, just kind of take it in here and there instead of sitting back and counting the calendar, just trying to get through it. Use a four-track or whatever, scribble it down.
I’m not trying to dwell on it. Some guys, like Leonard Cohen, it takes them a year to write 20 sentences, and I just can’t do that. I get too bored with the dwelling on one thing for a while. I mean, I’ll work on a subject or topic for sometimes that long, but not one song. More or less, I just categorize the different places that I live in. I don’t even think about it, but it’s easier for me to pull from things that are around me. I’m not trying to impress anybody. It’s just what I did that day. If it makes sense to me, that’s the thing. I don’t take photographs, so those songs are kind of like photographs I guess. It’s like lost and found.
That’s interesting, but unlike coupons, records don’t expire. What value do you see in preserving your observations?
The value changes depending on whoever it is. Sometimes people use coupons, they make weird folk art out of it without trying to be weird or folk artists. You know, it’s a piece of paper. It belonged to a tree. It goes back into the dump. Somewhere along the line it goes to use in something else. Maybe a worm will eat and shit it out, and then it will go to the plants. Maybe somebody grows a marijuana plant from it, smokes a bud, and then they go to jail. And then somebody else learns a lesson, and then they change the law.
I don’t know. It’s kind of something I just have to do. I’m glad if somebody buys it and likes it and comes to see the show. I can pretty much play every song I ever wrote. It might take me a minute to dig it out of my brain.
I like to keep moving. I’ll hold onto a song for a while and then kind of toss it and maybe come back to it later. If recyclables are good for the environment then such with sounds. I dig it.
In the vein of recycling, do you draw from the records you hear the same as you do with the world around you?
Yeah. I love it. I love everything. I try not to think about it. I honestly don’t think about it that much. I just sort of wake up hung over or not hung over. It’s not about drinking. But I’ll wake up and have a melody. Or I’ll be driving, and there’s a melody and I’ll pull from it. If I hear other records I’ll pull from it. Like that lonesome sound of Hank Williams is really cool. Or that really really dirty ass fucking hollow sound that Pussy Galore had. It’s the same to me. I like the sounds of rooms and the vibe that goes with it, and people dancing is really cool. I like all kinds of music. Some of my songs will influence other songs for sure, and some of the records will influence the approach to take on it.
I get that, but when I pick up a John Wesley Coleman record, I immediately know it’s a John Wesley Coleman record. It has like its own particular style.
Do you feel like that’s something you arrive at by chance or is there more of an intent?
It’s not intentional, and it’s not chance. It’s in between really. When I first picked up a guitar and started playing it, I just started writing songs. I didn’t learn how to play guitar really. I just started banging on it when I was 15. I’ve been writing songs since then, so they just sort of change over time. I won’t deny that there’s stuff in there that sounds like that or this. I try to do a little bit of change and stuff, but I’m glad that you said that.
I’m just keeping it real, trying not to bullshit people. I do a song because it’s fun. I have a new record that I just finished. I’ll do some kind of theme-style stuff; like with the new one, I did one that sounds like an ’80s rock ballad and alternative ’90s shit. When I did it, it just sounded like anything else I do. If I try to write a country song, it won’t come out like a country song. If I try to write a punk song, I’m not very good at writing punk songs. But I like to use new things, tone, whatever.
Do you think that restlessness with sound you’re talking about is the same kind of restlessness that leads you to write about all these different things?
I can’t stand still very long. I can’t hold onto anything very long. I’ve been working at this restaurant, and it’s like the longest job I’ve ever had, at least since I’ve been in my 30s. And I’m in the longest relationship I’ve ever been in with a girl. Like right now, I can’t sit still talking to you. It bugs me.
Maybe that’s where I get in the songs. The more and more that I record with the same people, I rush through the recordings faster now. I fidget, you know? It’s kind of good. It kind of keeps me off of drugs and shit. I used to be a lot faster and crazier living. A lot of the songs were, you know, like that too. There’s a sense of restlessness in the songs because that’s how I am. When I’m in the mood, and I have a melody, I write it right then and there. I don’t dwell on it for a long time. I just put it out there.
How do you define when you’ve got a song? You’ve got short songs revolving around one line like “Oh Basketball” and “Christians Drive Like Shit.”
Well, with “Christians Drive like Shit,” I was driving through Fort Worth on my way to a show, and I just kept noticing that all these cars had like the fish symbol on the back of them. I started realizing that if you ever see those cars, they actually drive really bad, like really fast and on your ass. They cut you off. Christians are supposed to be nice. Aren’t you supposed to be nicer if you’re Christian? But when you’re on the highway, they can be like demons. I thought that was funny.
When do you decide a simple little thought like that warrants a riff and drums and a bass line to become a song?
I’ll sing along in my head the melody, and I’ll get home and punch it out on the guitar. If it works, I keep it. If it doesn’t, then I’ll just save it and deal with it later, but I don’t do that a lot. I try to write more verses on some of these songs. I like writing a lot about women being stronger and being tougher. I did it for a little while, like a woman stealing from a man and going to jail and being tough.
Sometimes I write it, and then I forget how I wrote it. It just happens so fast. It’s not writing one song. I often write like three or four in a row. I’ve just conjured up shit in my head, and then I spit it out, then I forget how I did it. Then like a year from now I’ll remember.